He had a great run for a while as avenging angel and agent provocateur for the “alt-right,” but this week Milo Yiannopoulos met his comeuppance.
His was a rapid rise but an even more precipitous fall, and now, like the song says, “nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” On the left and the right, the fair-weather friends of free speech have fallen curiously silent.
Unless you regularly go paddling through the “alt-right” fever swamps, you may not have heard much about Milo before. The Breitbart technology editor enjoyed some notoriety last July when his trolling briefly chased actress Leslie Jones off Twitter, and he got himself banned for violating the company’s anti-harassment policy. Then, channeling Larry Flynt more than John Peter Zenger, the newly-minted martyr for free speech monetized his naughty behavior for a new round of dates on the “Dangerous Faggot” college speaking tour he’d begun the previous fall.
College Republicans couldn’t book him fast enough. He savagely mocked the PC crowd, demeaned women, disparaged Black Lives Matter, attacked Islam, ridiculed a transgender student and generally reveled in the mayhem strewn in his wake.
When dates weren’t canceled by nervous college administrators, they often turned into chaos. At UCLA last year, protesters blocked attendees from getting in; at UC Berkeley this month, Black Bloc and BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) militants stormed the campus, disrupted a peaceful student protest and began attacking police, setting fires and trashing local businesses.
The university, which had earlier refused on First Amendment grounds to cancel the event, saw it canceled anyway when police lost control of the situation. Not for the first time had a classic heckler’s veto shut Milo down.
Last December, Milo parlayed his bad-boy performance art into a Simon & Schuster book deal with a $250,000 advance. More than 100 other authors protested, a grassroots campaign demanded the publisher drop the project, and the Chicago Review of Books, a small literary journal, even vowed to boycott all Simon & Schuster books.
Milo was giving the left a collective nervous breakdown, and the “alt-right” was loving it. But on Feb. 18, the Conservative Political Action Conference announced him the keynote speaker for this weekend’s conference, and the traditional right, never entirely comfortable with his headline-grabbing antics, finally had enough.
Within hours, the conservative empire struck back: a mysterious Twitter account called “The Reagan Battalion” dug up and posted a link to an obscure podcast in which Milo can clearly be heard defending sex between men and boys, questioning age-of-consent laws, and crudely joking about his own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s website, picked it up and the story went viral.
In full panic mode, Milo quickly posted one mea culpa, then another, then called a press conference to apologize and explain. Had it not been so catastrophic, it would have been comical.
Who cares about the nuances between pederasty and pedophilia? For most of us, it’s a distinction without a difference, since both practices are illegal, immoral and reprehensible. Within two days, Milo was finished: CPAC disinvited him to speak, Simon & Schuster canceled the book, Breitbart forced him to quit. Reviled by the left, exiled by the right, it’s hard to imagine how he professionally recovers.
But for the rest of us, it’s been an instructive experience.
Give Milo credit for this: He outed with abandon the summer soldiers defending the First Amendment and laid bare the fault lines on all sides of the free speech debate.
In mocking the pretensions of the left and self-regarding “social justice warriors,” his withering attacks put their vaunted tolerance and broad-mindedness to the test, where they were found severely wanting.
Progressives who once disparaged the censorious blue-noses in the Moral Majority or mocked Tipper Gore’s music warning labels today find themselves championing speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces and pressure campaigns to squelch all speech they don’t like, on campus, in the media and in political campaigns – all, of course, in the name of openness, inclusiveness and diversity.
Nor does today’s right have clean hands. As a gay Catholic-Jewish British journalist, Milo was always an unlikely avatar for a movement that has become increasingly homophobic and xenophobic, trafficking in crude anti-Semitic and racist appeals. Moreover, while conservatives generally frown on unfettered free expression, they were happy enough to let Milo go wild as long as he served their purposes.
In his excesses, Milo exposed the sham of both the left’s tolerance for unpopular ideas and the right’s commitment to fearless truth-telling no matter whom they offend.
Hypocrisy, it is said, is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Milo has now paid for it dearly.
Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org